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Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Success and Failure Theme Icon
Talent, Opportunity, Work, and Luck Theme Icon
Timing and Historical Context Theme Icon
Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background Theme Icon
Solutions and Implications for the Future Theme Icon
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Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background Theme Icon

One of the most complex and subtle thematic elements of Gladwell’s argument concerns the idea of privilege, and the crucial role that cultural heritage plays in determining success. Cultural heritage can be an advantage or a disadvantage, and sometimes it can be both at once. For example, the rise of Jewish-run law-firms in New York City in the early 20th century had much to do with the fact that Jews were discriminated against, and forced to form their own (often litigation-oriented) firms. This ended up giving Jewish firms a major advantage when corporate takeovers became common practice later in the 20th century. The tremendous success of many of New York’s most legendary lawyers stemmed from the disadvantage that religious discrimination had formerly imposed on them: a disadvantage became a huge advantage over time. Gladwell expands on this point throughout the book, examining ways that our cultural heritage can influence our attitudes towards race, religion, honor, work (and what constitutes “meaningful” work), money, and entitlement. Cultural forces even generations removed can determine success as much as timing, talent, hard work, and luck.

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Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background appears in each chapter of Outliers. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background Quotes in Outliers

Below you will find the important quotes in Outliers related to the theme of Privilege, Heritage, and Cultural Background.
Intro Quotes

They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from.

Related Characters: Stewart Wolf
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this introduction, Gladwell sketches out the format of his book. He describes a doctor named Stewart Wolf who tried to solve a medical mystery: why the population of a small local town was so healthy. Wolf concluded that no external stimuli (water, nutrition, etc.) could explain the town's health--the answer lay in the town's culture of care and attention to detail. Gladwell hopes that he can apply the same techniques to statistical analysis: just as Wolf looked holistically at his community, Gladwell hopes to analyze the broader, cultural factors that determine things like success, failure, and progress.

Gladwell's basic point is that there are two ways to explain a phenomenon: focusing on individuals and focusing on a group. In our society, we like to focus on individuals: when a person succeeds, we like to believe that they did so thanks to their own hard work and determination. Gladwell (and Wolf) is skeptical of such ways of thinking: he wants to analyze success and failure in broader and more abstract terms.


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Chapter 4 Quotes

[Oppenheimer] possessed the kind of savvy that allowed him to get what he wanted from the world.

Related Characters: Chris Langan, Robert Oppenheimer
Page Number: 100
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell contrasts two figures: Chris Langan and Robert Oppenheimer. Langan was a highly talented young man who rose from poverty to study at Reed College, among other places. Oppenheimer was raised in a middle-class family, and studied at elite institutions, including Harvard and Cambridge. But Langan eventually dropped out of college because of various minor disagreements with his administrators. Oppenheimer was briefly put on probation while working on his Ph.D thesis. The reason Oppenheimer was put on probation was that he tried to poison his adviser--a serious crime.

The point Gladwell is getting at is that Oppenheimer managed to stay in a high-level academic program by using his negotiating and arguing skills, while Langan dropped out because he was too quick to take "no" for an answer. Gladwell uses the differences between Oppenheimer and Langan to clarify one of his key points: intelligence is not enough; drive and determination, as well as a social skills and luck, are also necessary to understand why certain people succeed. 

The sense of entitlement…is an attitude perfectly suited to succeeding in the modern world.

Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell argues that certain kinds of people are much more adept at feeling a sense of entitlement. Feeling a sense of entitlement is extremely useful in succeeding in one's chosen field--those who feel a sense of entitlement will be more likely to lobby for funds, make relationships with their colleagues, and generally fight for themselves. And yet entitlement, Gladwell finds, correlates closely with class. People who are raised in middle or upper-class families have a greater sense of entitlement: they're encouraged to speak up, and they expect other people to pay attention when they do.

In all, Gladwell's findings suggest that class is a key factor in determining success in life. One's class determines one's sense of entitlement, a key factor in success.

No one—not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses—ever makes it alone.

Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell sums up his findings so far: success in life is never, ever, the result of innate talent alone. On the contrary, people succeed because of many different factors. On one hand, people succeed because of factors like luck and coincidence--if Gates or Jobs had been born a few years earlier, they might not have become computer tycoons (Gladwell speculates). On the other hand, there are factors that seem innate, like drive and determination. But even such factors result in part from a person's nurture. Dr. Terman's test subjects' success correlated closely with their class and their sense of entitlement--indeed, Gladwell argues that class is a major factor in determining a person's sense of drive and determination.

Chapter 5 Quotes

Since we know outliers always have help along the way, can we sort through the ecology of Joe Flom and identify the conditions that helped create him?

Related Characters: Joe Flom
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell deals with another issue: the success of minorities and oppressed peoples. So far, Gladwell has been exploring the idea that people succeed because they're helped along by other people, or by sheer coincidence. How, then, would Gladwell respond to the success of people like Joe Flom--people who were persecuted because of their religious faith (Flom was a Jew) and yet became very successful? Surely Joe Flom's success is proof that the greatest talent rises to the top inevitably.

Gladwell seeks to debunk the idea that minorities' success is only the result of their striving and hard work. On the contrary, he argues, the playing field certainly isn't even, but minorities are still subject to the same system of luck, circumstance, and determination. While their overall privileges may be less than members of majorities, certain factors can still uniquely contribute to success in individual cases.

Is there a perfect time for a New York Jewish lawyer to be born? It turns out there is.

Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell continues to study the career of Joe Flom in order to show that even minorities and exploited groups benefit from chance. Gladwell argues that Flom--who overcame racism, poverty, and a global depression to become one of the most powerful lawyers of his day--was lucky to be born in the year 1930. Flom was born at a time when the overall population of the U.S. was expanding at a slower rate. As a result, Flom had less competition in schools and less competition in applying to law firms. As strange as it sounds, Flom benefitted from random chance as much as anything else--had he been born in 1919, he might not have been accepted to such high-quality law schools, and therefore might not have gone on to be such a successful lawyer.

Chapter 6 Quotes

I realize that we are often wary of making these kinds of broad generalizations about different cultural groups—and with good reason. This is the form that racial and ethnic stereotypes take. We want to believe that we are not prisoners of our ethnic histories.

Page Number: 170
Explanation and Analysis:

In this section, Gladwell offers a very important disclaimer. Gladwell is beginning to argue that culture is an important determining factor in people's behavior. The rate of "personal crime" in the South, for example, can be partly explained by the influence of a cultural tradition that stretches back hundreds of years and continues to exert a powerful influence on how people speak and behave.

Gladwell is worried that his ideas could be interpreted as "essentializing"--i.e., that he could be interpreted as saying that certain groups of people (black people, say) will always act a certain way because of their culture. Gladwell wants to make it clear that he's saying nothing of the kind. Rather, he's talking about a greater likelihood of a certain behavior, one that is grounded in culture. Culture doesn't determine what we do to a certainty, but it would be foolish to deny that culture plays a major role in influencing our behavior.

Chapter 7 Quotes

[The pilot’s] plane is moments from disaster. But he cannot escape the dynamic dictated to him by his culture in which subordinates must respect the dictates of their superiors.

Page Number: 208
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell studies the importance of culture in determining the rate of plane crashes. In one particular example, a Korean airplane is about to crash. The first officer is frightened, but knows that he should try to pull up. However, the first officer is reluctant to tell his immediate superior to pull up, because he feels that doing so would be disrespectful. In short, the first officer doesn't do his job because of cultural factors--the strong tradition of respect and loyalty in Korean culture.

There are many factors that determine plane crashes, but Gladwell argues that culture can't be ignored. The relationship between different pilots on a plane affects the plane's likelihood of landing safely, so at times, even something as seemingly abstract as culture can affect a plane's flight.

Chapter 8 Quotes

Throughout history, not surprisingly, the people who grow rice have always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer.

Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Gladwell uses his studies of Chinese culture to argue that China's legacy of hard work on rice paddies has echoes and reverberations in modern Chinese culture. For centuries, a huge chunk of the Chinese population worked on rice paddies, where the hours were brutal and the work was tremendously challenging. Gladwell wants to argue that the culture of hard work and toil has led to an "accumulation" of certain cultural values over time: the emphasis on hard work continues to influence modern Chinese people. Gladwell here arrives at a (rather conjectural) conclusion: Chinese people's famous reputation for hard work is partly the result of their country's rice-based economy.

Chapter 9 Quotes

This idea—that effort must be balanced by rest—could not be more different from Asian notions about study and work, of course.

Page Number: 254
Explanation and Analysis:

Before he begins to discuss the American education system, Gladwell contrasts two different sets of cultural values: one recognizably "Western," one recognizably Chinese. Perhaps it is a Western notion that work and rest must be balanced out (even the Bible says so!). In Chinese culture, by contrast, there's a much greater emphasis on hard work as an end, not just a means to an end. (This is a rather simplified argument, however, considering ideas like the "Protestant work ethic" and various Western cultures that emphasize leisure far more than America.)

In short, Gladwell is trying to explain differences between certain behaviors in Chinese and American society by citing the vast differences in Chinese and American culture. Culture, he argues, is an important factor in how people behave and how they interact with one another. The only way to fully understand academic success and failure across the world is to analyze cultural differences.

Schools work. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it.

Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Gladwell uses statistical analysis to argue that the biggest problem with the American educational system is that summer vacation is too long. For middle- and upper-class families, summer vacation is an opportunity for children to gain useful skills: studying, joining sports teams, going to camp, etc.--things that usually require money and free time on the parents' part. For lower-class families, however, summer vacation is a time when many students regress. Without intellectual stimulation or access to clubs or teams, lower-class children fall behind their wealthier peers--a tragic decline that school is partly designed to reverse.

In all, Gladwell argues that school succeeds in its intended purpose: providing the equalizing force of education for students of all ages and economic brackets. But because of the length of summer vacation (a phenomenon that's basically unique to American kids), the gap between wealthy and poor students is higher than it needs to be.

Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends—all the elements of her old world—and replace them with KIPP

Related Characters: Marita
Page Number: 266
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Gladwell clarifies and qualifies some of his thoughts about how to achieve equality and success in American society. He praises schools like KIPP, which are designed to help students from low-income families by giving them year-round education. By going to school 12 months of the year, students gain an advantage over their wealthier peers, equalizing society somewhat.

But, as Gladwell fully admits, it's unfair that poorer students are the ones who should have to change their behavior by working harder. Marita, the student Gladwell discusses in this chapter, attempts a KIPP school, and she works like crazy. She wakes up early every day, comes home from school, does her homework until midnight, and then goes to sleep again. She works incredibly hard, simply to be as educated and well-qualified for college as wealthier students (who have the luxury of summer vacation). Marita is making an incredible sacrifice: she's giving up her friends and her weekends, just to succeed in life.

It's important that Gladwell makes this point here. Gladwell wants society to reform using his findings, but he doesn't believe that society will necessarily become "fairer" in the process. Marita is working hard to achieve equality with her wealthier peers--a process that is far from fair, and actually rather tragic.

Marita just needed a chance. And look at the chance she was given! Someone brought a little bit of the rice paddy to South Bronx and explained to her the miracle of meaningful work.

Related Characters: Marita
Page Number: 269
Explanation and Analysis:

In the end, Gladwell argues that Marita--the young student who studies hard at KIPP--is making a worthwhile sacrifice by attending the KIPP school. Marita is giving up her friends and her weekends, but she's gaining the opportunity to go to college, make more money, and provide for her family. In short, Marita has been offered an incredible chance, which few of her low-income peers ever get: the chance at a good education. Marita is, in short, the very embodiment of the "seized opportunities" that Gladwell finds so important to success. People like Marita succeed in the long run, not just because of their innate talent, but because they seize all available opportunities for success. By working hard at KIPP, Marita gives up a lot but may gain more in the long run.

Eplg Quotes

These were history’s gifts to my family—and if the resources of that grocer, the fruits of those riots, the possibilities of that culture, and the privileges of that skin tone had been extended to others, how many more would now live a life of fulfillment, in a beautiful house high on a hill?

Page Number: 285
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of his book, Gladwell turns his analysis to his own family. Gladwell acknowledges that his own success in life is the result of his heritage and his economic background, not just his intelligence or his talent. Gladwell grew up in relative prosperity because his ancestors had a huge advantage over their darker-skinned peers: his ancestors lived at a time when white and pale-skinned people were heavily favored over black and dark-skinned people. In short, Gladwell has succeeded in life because he was given the opportunity for success thanks to social prejudices and his family history.

Gladwell can't help but wonder how different society would be if everyone had the advantages that he enjoyed as a child. To contemplate one's own success honesty and frankly is to admit that there are billions of people who deserve the same success but have never gotten the chance to gain it.